In my Yom Kippur sermon I revealed that I considered Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, a 1st century Jewish sage, to be my personal Jewish hero – and that I considered his story to be a defining Jewish story.
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I’m often intrigued by the way every community tells its own stories – the mythic accounts they tell and retell that define who they are as a people. We Jews, of course, have been a story-telling people from time immemorial. We certainly do not lack for tales – which taken together, reflect a great deal about our collective sense of ourselves, what we hold sacred, how we understand our place in the world.
Every one of us has our personal favorites. There are the well-known ones, of course: the Exodus, the covenant at Sinai, the return from Babylonian exile. But beyond the Jewish People’s “Greatest Hits,” there are a myriad of other important, central stories to choose from. They may not be as popular or recited nearly as often, but in their way, I believe they can illuminate just as much, if not more, about our own sense of our collective Jewish self.
I’ve been thinking about this lately – mainly because lately I seem to find myself returning again and again to one particular story. I’d like to share it with you today – along with a few thoughts as to why I love it so much – and why it’s my choice as the “defining Jewish story.”
It’s the story of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and the founding of Yavneh. Many of you may be familiar with this particular story, or at least parts of it. It comes primarily from Talmudic sources and is essentially a mix of historical events and popular legend.
Yohanan ben Zakkai was a leading Jewish sage in Jerusalem who lived during a pivotal moment in Jewish history: before, during and after the destruction of the Temple in the year 73 ACE. Ben Zakkai was a pupil of the great Rabbi Hillel and one of the rabbinical authorities responsible for transmitting the chain of Jewish law and tradition. He was a Pharisee, but he also came from a priestly family – and he was known for admonishing his fellow priests for putting themselves above the common people.
Ben Zakkai was one of the central Jewish leaders during the Roman siege of Jerusalem. If you’ve studied this period, then you know there was a great deal of conflict in the Jewish community over how to respond to the Roman threat. Leading rabbis such as Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel actively advocated armed revolt against Rome. There were also various sects of zealots who were also proliferating around this time. They viewed this crisis in apocalyptic terms, seeing it as a precursor to the coming of the Messiah.
Yohanan Ben Zakkai, was Ben Gamliel’s deputy, but he pointedly refused to take part in the revolt. For his part, Ben Zakkai counseled moderation in the face of what he considered to be growing fanaticism and over-confidence. In reaction to the rebels who were gaining control of the country and destroying non-Jewish shrines, he was quoted as saying, “Do not hasten to tear down the altars of gentiles, lest you be forced to rebuild them with your own hands.” He also spoke out against rising messianism with this famous quote: “If you hold a sapling in your hand and someone says the Messiah has come, plant the sapling first, then go to welcome the Messiah.”
Ben Zakkai lived trapped in Jerusalem along with many other Jews at the time of the siege. As the Romans prepared to breach the city walls, Jewish zealots were guarding its gates to prevent anyone from leaving. And so, with the help of his pupils, Ben Zakkai was smuggled out of Jerusalem by hiding in a coffin. Shortly thereafter, as Jerusalem fell, he appeared before the Roman commander Vespasian and asked him to allow the surviving Jewish religious leadership to reconstitute itself in a small town called Yavneh.
The destruction of the Temple was a cataclysmic event in Jewish history. The center of Jewish life had now been ripped away and by all rights, this would have been the moment that the party was over: the moment in which Judaism now became just a mere footnote in a history book. But Ben Zakkai refused to accept that the end of the Temple necessarily meant the end of Judaism itself. According to a famous midrash:
Once when Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem, Rabbi Joshua was walking behind him and saw the Temple in ruins. Rabbi Joshua said, “Woe to us that this has been destroyed, the place where atonement was made for the sins of Israel.” Rabbi Yohanan responded, “No, my son, do you not know that we have a means of making atonement that is just like it? And what is it? It is deeds of love and mercy, as it is written: ‘For I desire kindness, and not sacrifice.’” (Hosea 6:6)
And so, under Ben Zakkai’s leadership, Judaism transformed fundamentally: from a cultic system that revolved around a central sacrificial system, to a full-fledged religion based on sacred deeds: based on worship, study, and acts of lovingkindness.
Ben Zakkai proceeded to reconstitute the Sanhedrin – the central Jewish court – in Yavneh, which now become the new spiritual center of learning for the Jewish people. The new leadership in Yavneh proceeded to proclaim new moons and holidays and they instituted numerous changes in Jewish law that had now become necessary with the destruction of the Temple. In short order, Yavneh had filled the void that had been created by this tragic cataclysm.
I will confess to you: the more I think of this story – the more I study it – the more sacred it becomes for me. I’m comfortable in saying Ben Zakkai is one of my huge Jewish heroes. I believe his story is a quintessential, perhaps the quintessential, Jewish story. And though it is certainly a historical account from a very unique place and time, I believe his story has lost none of its immediacy or urgency for us today.
I find this story to be relevant to us for three essential reasons. The first has to do with some of the things I spoke of on Rosh Hashanah: I believe Ben Zakkai’s actions during this crisis powerfully models the sacred Jewish imperative of pursuing peace at all costs. As I pointed out last week – and as Ben Zakkai demonstrates – “Seek Peace and Pursue It” is not simply a moral platitude. It’s an eminently practical and effective form of direct action that has the power to save lives.
As I pointed out, Ben Zakkai was well known in his day as a vocal proponent for peace and was not among the rabbis who advocated rebellion. Those who did are today considered to be heroes by Jewish tradition. In fact, their legacy has actually been enshrined in the Martyrology section of the traditional Yom Kippur service. This is the section that recalls, in very vivid detail, the tragic torture and executions of the ten rabbis who led the rebellion against Rome – including Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon be Gamliel.
I understand why we honor these heroic rabbinic martyrs as part of our liturgy – but I’ve often been puzzled why we don’t honor the other side of the equation: Rabbi Yochanan, and ones who chose life. After all, isn’t “choose life” one of the most basic imperatives of our tradition? To be sure, Ben Zakkai’s choice to sneak out of Jerusalem to strike a deal with a Roman commander might seem cowardly to some – especially when compared to the story of the ten rabbis or the martyrs of Masada – another oft told story from this period. Nevertheless, it was this “cowardly” action that ensured life for the Jewish people and Jewish tradition. After all, none of us present here today are actually the heirs to the Jews of Masada – the ones who chose to take their own lives rather than surrender to the Roman army. We’re the ancestors, literally and spiritually, of the ones who chose Yavneh. At the end of the day, we’re the heirs of the ones who chose life.
If relatively few Jews know much about Rabbi Ben Zakkai, I’m sure even fewer know of Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum. During the Holocaust, Rabbi Nissenbaum was a prominent rabbi in the Warsaw ghetto who advocated a concept he called “Kiddush Hachayim,” which literally means “sanctification of life.” In doing this, he was providing a pointed alternative to the classical notion of Jewish martyrdom known as “Kiddush Hashem.” Rabbi Nissenbaum rejected the idea of dying for a sacred cause. As he saw it, remaining alive at any cost was viewed a way of denying the Nazi’s intention to physically annihilate the Jewish people. Remaining alive was a sacred form of resistance in its own right. As I see it, this is one of Ben Zakkai’s most sacred legacies to us as well.
The second reason I find this story compelling: it demonstrates Judaism’s miraculous power to respond when the world around it changes. As I mentioned before, the destruction of the Temple was a true turning point – perhaps the turning point in Jewish history. It could well have become the moment in which Judaism called it a day and said, “Well, it’s been a nice run, but the party’s over. That’s it. We’ve reached the end of the road.” And there were many in the Jewish community like the Saducees and other sects who said precisely that.
But Ben Zakkai and his followers modeled a different approach: an approach that responded to crisis with creativity and innovation. We can’t offer sacrifices? That’s OK. We’ll look to prayer and good deeds to be the functional equivalent of sacrifice. And, at the end of the day, what is sacrifice, but the outer ritual: the medium, rather than the sacred message. At the end of the day, the essential message, the essence of Judaism goes much deeper than the ritual acts themselves.
No more Temple in Jerusalem? That’s OK, synagogues and houses of study will now become the communal centers of Jewish life. Judaism does not have to be geographically specific. We don’t need to live in or around Jerusalem to be a player. Jews can create community, worship God, perform sacred acts anywhere in the land of Israel – or anywhere in the world for that matter. Judaism will now become a religious tradition for a nation of wanderers – a sacred system designed to be taken on the road.
No more priests to lead the people of Israel? Not a problem. Rabbis will now constitute the new leadership model for the Jewish people: leaders who achieve their position through study and learning, not through their family line. Jewish life will flourish wherever there are Jewish leaders learned enough to rule on matters of Jewish law.
I personally believe this is the sort of spiritual creativity that has enabled the Jewish people to survive as long as they have. We’ve historically greeted change in a spirit of openness and innovation – and in this way we’ve allowed Jewish tradition to evolve and thrive over the centuries. And isn’t this what we Reconstructionists say about the inherent strength of Jewish civilization: that it is a dynamic and ever-evolving organism?
Perhaps it’s a bit self-serving to say, but I believe Rabbi Ben Zakkai one of the first great Reconstructionists. In a time of crisis and change, he respected the dynamism of Judaism enough to not only survive, but to flourish. And in many ways, I believe he helped set the stage for the future evolution of Jewish civilization. Over the centuries Judaism has always emerged from these critical historical turning points – and has found itself better and stronger for it.
Indeed, many historians have pointed out that the most important and creative chapters in Jewish history have invariably come out of crisis. And by crisis I do not simply mean historical tragedy. As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan has pointed out, the onset of modernity has been welcome for the Jewish community in so many ways – but it has also has presented us with huge challenges, some in their way as transformative as the ones faced by Ben Zakkai’s generation.
How will Judaism face the theological challenges of our day? How will it grow in consonance with contemporary democracy and egalitarian ideals? How will it grow to incorporate the growing diversity of the Jewish community? Can Judaism evolve out of its historically insular, tribal nature and respond to the world’s new globalized reality? We will only really live to know the answers if we choose to respond as Ben Zakkai, by engaging these challenges with open mindedness and creativity.
Which leads me to the third and final reason why I consider Ben Zakkai’s story so compelling. In short: it affirms hope and rejects despair. This is, I believe, the quintessentially Jewish way of living in the world. For beyond the historical and political implications of this story, it contains a profoundly spiritual message: we must respond to upheaval and uncertainty with hope and faith. And in the end, can there be any better way to live our lives?
It is important to note that Jewish tradition does not simply view the destruction of the Temple as a historical moment: on a much deeper level, it is a mythic event that represents the existential ruptures in our own lives and our world. When a bride and groom break a glass at a Jewish wedding, for instance, they aren’t simply marking an event that occurred thousands of years ago. As they leave the sacred protection of their wedding canopy, they do with the acknowledgement that the world they are entering is not a perfect world. It is a world that will be filled with challenge, with struggle, and yes, even with pain. But by breaking the glass, they are demonstrating, just like Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai and the Jews of Yavneh, that they have the commitment and faith to face up to the challenges of the outside world together.
And so too with all of us, on each and every day of our lives. Sooner or later, the jagged edges of this broken world will enter our lives. The real question is not if, or even when, but how? How will be respond to the brokenness? By fighting a futile fight in the hopes that we can somehow change the inevitable? By ignoring the pain, or burying it deep down? Or by greeting these challenges with openness and love, knowing that in the end, they are opportunities for transformation?
This is also why we all gather here year after year on Yom Kippur. Because the challenges, the changes, the transformation of the past year still weigh heavily upon us. A year yet to be revealed lies before us. What else can we do but send our prayers and hopes and dreams for another year of life, of health, of peace?
But at the same we know that despite our prayers, it will be for us a year of challenges and losses both large and small. That’s why we say every year, when we pray the Unetaneh Tokef: “U’teshuvah, U’tefillah, U’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah ha’gezeyrah.” “Repentance, prayer and tzedakah lessen the severity of the decree.” When we sing out these words every year, I can’t help but think of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s consoling words to Rabbi Joshua: “No we’ve lost the Temple, and that is a huge loss indeed. But we need not despair. Because we still have the power to bring holiness to our lives and to our world through other forms of sacred action: through love, through kindness, through acts of mercy. And these actions will always hold the key to our redemption.”
This, more than anything, is why I seem to keep returning again and again to this amazing story. Because it teaches me the most Jewish of lessons: despair is not an option. No matter how painful the challenges or how cataclysmic the losses that enter our lives. Our tradition is a tradition of hope in the future. Not a future we can predict, or necessarily even the future we would ideally wish for ourselves, but still the future that is ours’ to claim. If, like the good rabbi, we choose to respond to the all of life with open arms.
May we all be blessed with a year of life, health and peace.